The summer has begun, and the NFL and its locked-out players still lack an agreement to guarantee games will be played in 2011.
Urgency is apparent, but just how close the situation can or will get to the delay, alteration or cancellation of the preseason -- or more -- remains to be seen.
Both sides finished three straight days of not-so-secret negotiations Thursday near Chicago, before the contingents made their way to St. Louis. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is holding a pivotal hearing Friday in the nearly three-month work stoppage, determining whether the lockout itself is legal after U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson in Minnesota ruled April 25 it wasn't.
Lawyer Paul Clement will argue the case in court for the NFL. Several players are expected to attend the hearing in support of the other side.
As the three-judge panel takes Friday's arguments under advisement, having already ruled 2-1 to put a stay on Nelson's order and keep the lockout in place through the appeal process, the start of training camps is creeping closer.
"We can't just go from where we are now and jump into games. There has to at least be an abbreviated training camp to get us somewhat prepared for the season. If not, there are going to be a lot of injuries," said free agent offensive tackle Damien Woody, who last played for the New York Jets.
"There's a difference between what guys, including me, are doing right now to stay in shape versus what we would be doing in OTAs and minicamps. We're going to need time to get into football shape. Training camp usually starts in late July, and time is running out because it's already June. I think we have to get a deal done by late July at the latest. The players will need time to install schemes and put guys through the paces to truly get ready for a 16-game season."
Free-agent linebacker Ben Leber, one of 10 plaintiffs on the still-pending antitrust lawsuit against the league that was filed after the players broke up their union to take the labor dispute to court, said the players haven't discussed a specific drop-dead date for reaching an agreement to ensure the on-time start of training camps.
But he said it's necessary to have a date to reach a deal.
"Both sides have a day, whether they want to make it public or not," Leber said. "The biggest challenge is going to lie with whose day is going to come up first. Once it got to this point, I think it was just a good guess based on most corporate labor disputes that nothing was going to get done until the 11th hour. Now it depends on which 11th hour gets here first."
Commissioner Roger Goodell and owners Jerry Jones, Robert Kraft and John Mara were among those joined in a Chicago suburb by NFL Players Association boss DeMaurice Smith and a group of players, including NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, before U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan.
Both sides issued statements honoring a court-ordered confidentiality agreement, and Boylan canceled mediation sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday in Minneapolis because of the "settlement negotiations" that were taking place.
A person with knowledge of the talks told The Associated Press that the term "settlement negotiations" doesn't necessarily mean an agreement is near. The person, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the judge's confidentiality order, said canceling next week's sessions was simply a way to keep the process as private as possible.
More likely than another round of mediated talks with Boylan would be a similar secret meeting without him -- between just the league and players, who have been locked out since March 12.
In the past, a clandestine approach has helped negotiations. Such meetings between former union executive director Gene Upshaw and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue often led to progress on a new collective bargaining agreement.
Though Friday's hearing more than likely won't yield an immediate decision, one sports labor expert believes it will be expedited. With the scheduled start to the regular season barely three months away, there is an urgency to push forward.
"They know that they have to move fast. We all know that training camps open in mid-July," said Jay Krupin of the Washington-based law firm EpsteinBeckerGreen. "I wouldn't be surprised if some of their clerks are already starting writing their opinion."
New Orleans Saints safety Darren Sharper said he hasn't heard specific drop-dead dates. But he believes by the start of August, "something has to be etched in stone," as for a new agreement.
"It looks bleak right now, but I'm thinking that something has to get worked out because too many people will be affected negatively if it does not get worked out," Sharper said.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay has said he believed some decisions on opening training camps late next month needed to be made by July 4. As for the last three days of meetings, Jones said it simply was good to be talking again, although not all the 32 team owners were made aware of the sessions beforehand.
This week's meeting near Chicago was a sign of progress, though that doesn't mean an agreement is imminent.
"At the front of the stage is the mediation, where they can walk out and smile for the TV cameras, but the back channel is really what makes the deal happen," Krupin said.
AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner in New York and AP Sports Writers Larry Lage in Detroit, Brett Martel in Metairie, La., and Teresa M. Walker in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this story.